HILO — Squatters, homeless, vacation rentals, taxes and an emergency relief package in the wake of last year’s volcanic eruption top the priority list Mayor Harry Kim is presenting to the state Legislature this year.
Kim presented his wish list Tuesday to the County Council Committee on Governmental Relations and Economic Development, which asked him for monthly updates as the regular session gets underway Jan. 16.
Kim is asking the Legislature for more flexibility in how the county can spend its quarter-cent general excise tax surcharge, a multi-million-dollar package to recover from the Kilauea eruption, legislation to deal with homeless and squatters, a greater share of the transient accommodations tax on short-term lodging and a state law requiring vacation rental operators to post their license numbers in their advertising.
The lava relief package, a $155 million ask over two years, includes funding for a state disaster recovery coordinator’s office, housing assistance, air quality and mental health assistance, an agricultural revolving loan program and other initiatives.
Some 20 people, primarily from Leilani Estates and several in tears, expressed their frustration to the council that they see little happening to improve access to their property and provide other relief. Kim told testifiers that rebuilding roads can’t begin until April, after the volcano has been calm for six months.
“We will have to be very creative with our approach,” said Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, who suggested the county push for policy changes to make recovery happen more smoothly, rather than just ask for money.
Council Chairman Aaron Chung has made Puna recovery efforts the top priority for the county this year. He’s also advised all council members to stay involved with the island’s legislative delegation as well as top legislative leaders.
“We’re working frantically to address matters of concern with the Legislature,” Chung said.
Kim, addressing the council, said homelessness remains a priority, but he’s also concerned about those who are voluntarily homeless as a lifestyle and he hopes stricter laws can be implemented against squatters and trespassers.
“We will do everything we can within our resources to help those who want help and seek help,” Kim said, “but for those who choose this lifestyle, we will publicly say, public and private facilities is not your private toilet, public and private facilities is not your rubbish dump, nor is it your private camp ground.”
The county is forming a task force to address the issue, said Finance Director Deanna Sako and has recently filled the homeless coordinator position that was vacant. She said the county plans to ask for some of the $30 million Gov. David Ige has earmarked for homeless programs.
Kim has again contracted with former state legislator Andy Levin for lobbying assistance over the next 89 days. Levin’s contract, at $7,500 a month, is a reduction from prior years’ $10,000 monthly. Levin’s job is to track bills and keep the administration and council informed during the fast-paced legislative session.
On the other priorities, Sako said the county needs flexibility in spending the one-quarter cent general excise tax the county started collecting Jan. 1. The state law, created to help Honolulu fund its rail project, currently limits the spending to roads, bridges, trails and mass transit projects.
Hawaii County is asking that 50 percent of the estimated $25 million annually be allowed to be used for other pressing issues around the county, such as the need for more police officers. The surcharge automatically expires at the end of 2020 unless action is taken to extend it.
“We’re willing to work with the Legislature. … There’s a lot coming down the pike. … We’re not going to be able to pay for all those things that are coming up,” Sako said. “We need to use it on what’s more demanding for us.”
Kim said setting the four counties’ share of the transient accommodations tax on hotels and other short-term lodging as a percentage rather than a set amount is also a priority, as is requiring short-term vacation rentals to provide their registration numbers on their advertising. That will make it easier to track vacation rentals when the county’s new law kicks in April 1, requiring county registration and setting zoning and building standards.